You are nervous, you’ve noticed, but you haven’t got any drugs to help with that, and visiting an unethical psychiatrist in order to acquire a prescription for those drugs would have a negative effect on your ability to obtain health insurance, should you ever feel inclined to do so. You sit on the edge of your bed, feet firmly planted on the floor. You are attempting to ground yourself, so as to move through the nervousness and enter a calm reality. The floor is cold, though, and it is physically painful to keep the sensitive soles of your bare feet flat upon the surface of the freezing floor. You begin to bounce your feet up and down rapidly, and because you had been leaning your elbows on your knees, and resting your head in your hands, the rest of your body shakes along with your bouncing feet. You allow a noise to escape from your mouth – a hum of sorts – and the shaking effects the hum as well. With your eyes fixed on an arbitrary spot on the wall, your feet bouncing on the freezing floor, your elbows jerking up and down with the bounce of your knees, your head wobbling along with the rest of your body, and this jittery, moaning, staccato hum escaping your mouth, you appear to any voyeurs looking through your window to be something of a dunce.

Your second grade teacher called you a dunce on a number of occasions. She called you a halfwit, a birdbrain, a cretin, a lummox, and a dunce. But she always did it while she was smiling, so maybe she was just fucking with you. “That’s a lovely cornucopia you’re drawing, you little cretin,” she told you the week of Thanksgiving. You looked up from your tiny desk, and your teacher grinned, bearing her teeth through her poorly applied red lipstick. You hadn’t wanted to draw the cornucopia – this assignment was just part of the second grade curriculum, and you weren’t one to cause waves in class. What the fuck was a cornucopia, anyway? Your family didn’t have one of these things in the center of the table during Thanksgiving. Drawing the food overflowing from the cornucopia made you hungry, and being hungry made you feel nervous, because it was the middle of the day, nowhere near the times set aside for meals, and when you were caught sneaking food between meals, your overweight teenaged babysitter called you a “little piggy” and made snorting noises at you for no fewer than five minutes, though this derision frequently stretched to as long as twenty minutes when the babysitter was in one of her moods. Once, you had the nerve to respond to her – “But aren’t you fat?” – and she threw an open can of Pepsi at your face.

Remembering your overweight babysitter and your second grade teacher are not helping you ground yourself – your current nervousness is thickening, in fact. You are compelled to go outside and stare into the sky at a cluster of clouds, searching for some sort of heavenly communication from your dead twin sister. You don’t know what message you’re looking for – an omen, possibly, but perhaps not. You attempt to ignore your brain, or your thoughts while you search, because you do not want to see what you want to see, but rather what was true and detached from your desires. You fail, however. While you manage to make out a few emoticon-esque frowning faces, the only other symbol you see clearly is a dollar sign – indubitably a prediction influenced by your selfish and materialistic earthly limitations. The remainder of the clouds appear to be nothing more than tufts of white, and to your knowledge, tufts of white are largely meaningless.

When you were very young, a relative came to stay with you and your family. You don’t remember the bloodline connection you shared with her, but you are fairly certain she was the cousin of your father. She had red hair, curly and big, and when just the two of you were alone in the guestroom, she held you against her hip and looked out the window with you during sunset. The clouds, which would in the future refuse to pass along heavenly communications to you, were pink from the sun. “Look at the cotton candy clouds,” the relative holding you whispered in your ear. And as you grew up, you remembered this woman, though you had no idea who she was, and you loved her so much when you thought of her holding you. You asked your father about her when you were in your early twenties, and he told you she was insane. “Schizophrenic,” he said. “Very sad, because she was a smart woman at one time.” You asked him if she was a smart woman when she came to visit, when she held you and pointed at the cotton candy clouds, and your dad laughs. “No, she was already psychotic by that time. Crazy as a loon.”

By this time, the sun is setting, and your nervousness has begun to wane. There are no clouds in the sky anymore, of the white tuft variety or the cotton candy variety, but the open sky is caramel colored and it looks like the pool of Pepsi that spilled out of the can your babysitter had whipped at your face when you called her fat. You don’t know if you’re crazy, like your father’s cousin, but you doubt it. You don’t know if you’re a little piggy or a cretin, but you doubt those accusations, too. You’re doing okay.

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Lenore Zion's first book, "My Dead Pets are Interesting," was published by TNB Books in 2011. She was an original contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. Zion's second book, "Stupid Children," was published by Emergency Press in February of 2013. Zion has a doctorate in clinical psychology, a degree which spawned her interest in psychological abnormalities. Her specialty is the treatment of sexual pathology and her dissertation focused on the paraphilias - sexual impulse disorders that include exhibitionism, pedophilia, fetishism, sadism, masochism, and frotteurism, among others. She lives in Los Angeles.

92 responses to “Soothing the Cretin Within”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Dearest Lenore,
    If I could make the clouds into pictures for you, I would have them arrange themselves into a big, billowing heart, filled with strawberry milkshake, pinkberry ice cream, cherries and coconut all with a big straw out the top.
    That would be my cloud picture for you. Fuck the cornucopia. What IS a cornucopia anyway? Is it at all like ambrosia?
    I bet your babysitter is now the size of a house and your teacher has a pinched up face like a cat’s bottom.
    And there you are – a stunning, clever, funny and amazing girl with the world at her feet.

    • Lenore says:

      Oh girl don’t worry. I made up those two bitches. I was speaking hypothetically. But I still want that cloud you’re making me. It sounds tasty.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Oh well, they’re still fat and pinched faced even if they are hypothetical.

        The cloud is yours.

        But WHAT is a cornucopia?? I know I could google it but I’m too lazy.

        • Lenore says:

          I don’t really know. It’s like a cone that has a bunch of food stuffed in it. I think. It represents the joy of having a surplus of crops to gorge upon. Or something.

        • Tawni says:

          When I see them, I have to dramatically sweep my hand across them and announce, “HORN OF PLENTY,” because that’s what they told my kindergartener to call a cornucopia.

      • Dana says:

        But the crazy second cousin was real, right?

        Really well written Lenore. Unfortunately, now I’m feeling a little anxious. How’d you do that? Are you trying to drum up business?

        • Lenore Zion says:

          it would be unethical for me to treat you, Dana, because i already feel fondly toward you.

          the cousin wasn’t really crazy i think. i don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

  2. Judy Prince says:

    I guess we’re all trying to soothe the cretin within, Lenore. That’s what reading this led me to think.

    I’m compelled to tell you once more that your writing reminds me, with this work especially, of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s *Notes from the Underground.* Your work is thick and rich like savoury ingredients in a cooking pot. As you stir the ingredients, fragrances and memories lift and become written labels that remain in a reader’s brain as real as the ingredients themselves.

    • Lenore says:

      I think you’re among a small population of people who read what I write the way I want it read. So thank you for being in that population. It’s flattering to have you there.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    This is a really beautiful piece of writing, Lenore. I love the voice. The Dostoevsky comparison is apt, but I also see a lot that makes me think of Lorrie Moore.

    Looking forward to reading more of your work!

  4. Richard Cox says:

    I think of crazy as a continuum, like maybe a slide rule, and you’re always wondering where you fall in its range. And that little cursor thing moves back and forth and sometimes it does land on you, because we can’t all be sane all the time. And some of us train it on ourselves more than we should, even when it’s not warranted, and that doesn’t make for very much fun. And some people never think the cursor is on them, when maybe it’s on them the most.

    Also, did the second person hypothetical narrator crave salt as a child?

    • Erika Rae says:

      You’re so smart, Richrob. It’s like you know crazy people. Only I would have asked if the 2nd person hypothetical narrator craved chalk. Meh. Each to his or her own.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      crazy is a meaningless word, i think. everyone thinks he’s crazy, and everyone thinks he’s sane. and everyone is right.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Forgive this brief comments hijacking, Lenore.

      I love Richard’s slide rule continuum comparison:

      ” . . . and you’re always wondering where you fall in its range. And that little cursor thing moves back and forth and sometimes it does land on you, because we can’t all be sane all the time. And some of us train it on ourselves more than we should, even when it’s not warranted, and that doesn’t make for very much fun. And some people never think the cursor is on them, when maybe it’s on them the most.”

  5. Rachel Pollon says:

    This made me want to hug you. Even if you were making shit up. You made something scary become rather beautiful. Like a librarian taking off her glasses and releasing her bun. Or something more goth. But seriously, I believed you. xo

    • Lenore Zion says:

      you can hug me. i always take hugs. unless you are dirty, but i don’t think you are. i think it’s funny that everyone always thinks i’m goth. i didn’t even know i was goth until everyone started telling me i am. but i think it’s sorta cool. cooler than not being goth, at least.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    Even if the babysitter was made up (which I don’t know if we should actually believe you on this assertion), I really like the idea of you pointing out her hypocrisy. Somehow, it just fits you. And I like that.

    What I like most about this piece is that it shows you as an independent force amidst everything else. Those clouds – your connectedness to them and also your disconnectedness to them. How what you see is not always as it is. And yet, there you are – asserting / feeling / finding who you are in the midst of it all. I like that, too.

    You made me wonder for a whole minute in the middle of this post whether I was one of these people who poorly applies lipstick. I think I am.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      thanks, e.rae. i doubt you poorly apply lipstick. if you did, someone would have told me about it after telling me not to tell anyone.

      maybe the babysitter is real, maybe she’s not. i think i made her up, but i’m sure she exists somewhere, just as i described her.

  7. Brian Eckert says:

    A cornucopia is an eye-gouging device to be used on dinner guests not giving enough thanks.

    It is both frightening and comforting to trace one’s cretinism back through the gene pool. I think especially as a cretin gets older, it learns that there’s nothing “wrong” with it…it’s just a bit of a cretin, and fuck it, that’s ok. Hell, it can be pretty damn fun at times.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      that is the best cornucopia definition i’ve heard. i think it should be that. there aren’t enough eye-gouging devices lying around on the dinner table, usually. you win this game.

  8. I love how it’s the “crazy” woman who is perfect and comforting in this piece (as in, maybe crazy is the new normal in the little world of this story). I don’t know. I haven’t slept in a day. And I really want a Pepsi. What were we talking about? Oh, *this*. It’s wonderful, Lenore!

    • Lenore Zion says:

      thank you! i didn’t make up the crazy person. i don’t know if she’s actually a relative, but some woman held me and pointed at pink clouds and called them cotton candy clouds. i’ve loved her ever since. i’m sure she’s not crazy, though. i just decided she’d be crazy here. i don’t know what i’m babbling about right now.

  9. Greg Olear says:

    What kind of babysitter drinks Pepsi? Sheesh.

  10. Courtney says:

    brilliant, brilliant.

  11. Sugarplum says:

    I want to read this to everyone.

  12. Gloria says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read right now.

    I think I’ll read it again tomorrow.

  13. Simon Smithson says:

    I like to think the babysitter got eaten by the sugar wolves on her way home one night.

  14. Lorna says:

    Lenore,
    This is one of those pieces that I read and I get a little uncomfortable. Then I re-read it and I get a little comfort. I read it yesterday and left it without commenting but I wanted to return and say how incredibly uncomfortably comfortable this was.

    Does this make me crazy?

    • Lenore Zion says:

      i’m sorry i made you uncomfortable and then comforted you. that’s a real shitty, manipulative thing to do to a person and you are probably trauma bonding with me now. so yes, you’re crazy.

  15. Magdalene says:

    How wonderful!

  16. Made up or for real, whatever. An extremely wonderful piece of writing, Lenore. Interestingly tense throughout a good portion of the work, then a nice release at the end.

  17. Christine Walling says:

    I plan to do a dramatic reading of this to my kids later. You’re amazing Lenore.

  18. Becky Palapala says:

    Cousin red-hair seems okay to me.

    I always remembered my dad’s friend Paul fondly. He lived with us briefly. He was a nice, jovial guy, kind of short and spritely/wirey, getting back on his feet after some rehab stuff. He joked and played with me and was the only guy I knew who was missing teeth and wasn’t scary for it. I liked him a lot.

    Then my dad found spoons and syringes in his room and kicked him out of the house and he developed severe depression with some kind of psychotic episodes and killed himself a couple years later.

    Sometimes the cretin wins, I guess, but I’ll be fucked if it’s getting me.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      that’s too bad. i could go into a long thing about addiction here, but i am in the middle of my work day and i don’t have time. but thank you for sharing, and i’m sorry that Paul’s story ended the way it did. and that you had to internalize it. i’m glad the cretin’s not gonna get you, though.

  19. sheree says:

    Holy shit you had alot of asswipes coming at you in your youth. Glad you survived them. I’ve taken care of a few Schizophrenic folks and in their moments of clarity they have told me some of the most profound things about life.
    One client told me that I reminded them of a worn out paper back book that couldn’t be put down. I had to be read again and again. To this day I have no idea what they meant by that, but it gives me comfort on days when I’m feeling a little less than my normal self.

    Great post!

    • Lenore Zion says:

      i didn’t really have all that many asswipes. i made up the teacher and babysitter. i was speaking in the second person, which makes it okay for me to lie a lot. anyway, i think that’s a really sweet thing for your client to have said to you. he has some transference issues, it sounds like….

      • sheree says:

        Total relief. Damn this literal mind of mine. Never know first person from second. Don’t get alot of jokes or metaphors either. Meh, maybe it’s best. Anywhoo glad ya hipped me to that, or I’d still be all bummed for ya! Happy new year.

  20. Joe Daly says:

    It’s funny but only in the past few years have I come to see how seemingly offhanded remarks from one’s distant past can turn into seeds of terrible emotional anguish.

    Do you think people are more comfortable labeling people as Schizophrenic/random mental illness because it removes the questions of “what’s bothering them?” and “how did they get that way?”

    • Lenore Zion says:

      i think people who don’t know what they’re talking about misdiagnose people all the time, including people in the mental health fields. hence the “of the moment” diagnoses. ADD, bipolar, borderline, aspergers, etc. it’s not because they are stupid that they misdiagnose people, it’s because they see what they want to see, and/or they filled in the blanks in front of them incorrectly. everyone is guilty of doing that. i also think they do this not because they don’t want to ask those questions (what’s bothering them, how did they get that way) but because we people have trouble believing other people could really be so different from what we are. so anyone who clearly is, must be insane.

  21. jmblaine says:

    In my last year of grad school
    the cranky old prof
    sat on the edge of his desk
    & said
    “If you learn nothing else here
    learn this.”
    We all leaned in.
    “I’m serious.” he said.
    His voice was like a stone
    falling to the bottom of Black Lake.
    “Every therapist I’ve ever known
    was bat-shit crazy.”
    There was silence, I thought someone
    might laugh but it didn’t happen.
    “Teach,” he said. “Teach college. While you can.”

  22. Kate says:

    Are you familiar with the medical term cretin? It’s a person with neonatal hypothyroidism.

  23. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    You’re talking about me, aren’t you? I knew it. Otherwise, who could this “you” be? Actually, I wish I could be more of a lummox in certain situations. Maybe not a birdbrain or a cretin, but a lummox stumbles in where other people were too timid to tread and clears the air. Often, they’re given television shows and their requests for threesomes are met with playful amusement.

    But I stay enough on this side of crazy that I can’t pull it off. Possibly there’s a psych term for this. No doubt invented by a lummox.

    But what I’ll take for now is the soothing elixir you have here.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      i don’t really know who i’m talking about. or what i’m talking about. ever. so it could be you. don’t you feel special?! which side of crazy are you talking about?

  24. rachel says:

    pretty pants. i love this one.

  25. Slade Ham says:

    I think you’re lucky. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone in my life that has actually used the word “lummox” in a sentence. I’m not even sure that I’ve ever heard the word spoken aloud. It’s on my bucket list.

    Damn you, Eronel Noiz.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      i’ll use it in a sentence with you. it can’t be too out of context, i imagine. does it count if it’s staged? your bucket list sounds kinda lame if that made the cut. or maybe it’s just really long. i don’t even have a bucket list, and if i did, it would be all about the different foods i want to eat around the world. the bucket list of a fatass.

  26. Matt says:

    I think we had the same babysitter, except mine was a little less hypothetical. And your second grade teacher taught my third grade.

    I’ll take cotten candy clouds over those two jerks any day of the week.

    Lovely and unsettling piece, Lenore.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      my real life babysitter was pretty awesome, actually. i remember her quite fondly. she’s probably dead now.

      • Matt says:

        I just assume everyone from my childhood is dead. That way I’m pleasantly surprised when they turn up alive.

        • Lenore Zion says:

          that’s a good approach. i only assume the people i left locked in the basement are dead.

        • Irene Zion says:

          I’ve been away, so I’ve missed a lot.
          Let me just say that we didn’t have a basement, the water table was too high.
          We had a crawl space.
          All the dead people are in the crawl space, honey.

  27. Slade Ham says:

    No it cannot be staged! Honest use of the word “lummox”, audibly, at a date to be determined later.

    And then I can scratch it off the list.

    And you have a KFC Bucket List. That’s super cool. I wanna eat stuff around the world. My list does suck now. Thanks.

    • Lenore Zion says:

      you can come eat weird things with me if you want. no one else wants to, so there’s a space open for you. but no vomiting in front of me. that’s the rule. i’m sure someone will spontaneously use the word lummox in front of you during our eating rampage.

      • Slade Ham says:

        Wait. You didn’t say anything about weird foods… I mean, I’ll still go, but you need to update your brochure.

        • Lenore Zion says:

          come on, pussy. why would i need to travel to eat a bunch of cheeseburgers? we’re going to eat shit like on that show “bizarre foods.” it’s gonna be awesome. that’s why the no barfing rule had to be stated.

        • Slade Ham says:

          Sure. Why not? I don’t even eat vegetables, but bring on the raw octopus and sauteed monkey dicks. When do we leave?

        • Lenore Zion says:

          hell yeah. you know, you and i are both pretty fucking funny. if we film this, i bet we easily sell it to some tv person. food network, you’re about to become way more awesome than you’ve ever been.

  28. D.R. Haney says:

    I already told you on the phone how much I like this piece, but now I’ll make it official. And don’t get crabby on my ass! It’s not my fault some made-up, fat babysitter threw a Pepsi in your face.

  29. Jorge says:

    What an amazing post, Lenore!

    Simply awesome.

  30. Are you sure we didn’t grow up in the same town? I think I had that same teacher as well. “Cretin” stings in such a familiar way. She also called me “a rose’s reject” which I didn’t understand until I was 23. Or maybe I still don’t.

    I really liked this piece.

  31. Brad Listi says:

    pepsi does feel like the cola that one might choose to “whip” at someone.

    like, when i think of a flying cola can, a cola can used as a weapon….i think pepsi cola.

  32. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Bear with me here…I took a class recently on C.G. Jung’s THE RED BOOK. This text served as the basis for much of his theories throughout his career as a psychologist. Some, however, claim that he was having psychotic episodes as he wrote it. Jung was hammered by “visions” and all manner of strange psycho-spiritual experiences. To read it is like watching an acid trip, although I’ve never had one of those. In class, there was brief discussion about how Westerners pathologize behavior that other cultures accept and protect. Non-ordinary reality has little place here.

    Your relative’s behavior might have obscured what she was like before, at least to the people who knew and loved her. What I gathered from this story was a moment with a kind, imaginative person who brought a moment of beauty into a child’s life. That’s not crazy. That’s a form of love.

  33. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    I never read anything ontime anymore, and my fucking spellcheck wants to tell you I never read anything onetime, but I want you to know I read this tonight, and it is wonderful. xo

  34. Nevin on your hands and nails and cum says:

    well, memories, so many, red, wet, and hard and angry and by the gods that remain and might be yet to come, i love and remember and I have the scars from nails on my back that say, yes, you, lenore, you exist. Do i remain on your cigarette lips?

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